The Phoenix Suns and Devin Booker at last have the NBA’s attention.
We’ve all seen the play by now. Booker has the ball at the logo. 4 seconds left in a tie game against the Los Angeles Clippers. He fakes right, goes left with a first-team all defense player on his hip. He’s greeted near the elbow by a former Defensive Player of the Year. Booker jump-steps to his right, pivots, and pulls the trigger on a fadeaway jumper with a defender’s hand millimeters from the ball. He lands on his back, and with one of the toughest buzzer beaters you’ll ever see, David defeats Goliath.
This play was one of many that informed the sporting world that these Suns weren’t the Suns of last decade. The days of 20-win seasons and draft busts are over. Phoenix has a squad now. It has its superstar, its sidekick, a deep bench and perhaps the piece that was hardest to fit in the Suns’ puzzle all these years: the perfect coach.
It’s not hard to believe that this team isn’t in the playoffs. Look at the standings. They don’t deserve it, it’s that simple. 10th place in the western conference won’t get you in.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. The Suns did all they could to get in. After an almost mythical 8-0 run in the bubble, they fell short after Portland defeated Brooklyn Thursday night. Though the rules are clear and the Suns simply weren’t good enough before the bubble, it almost feels unfair to all NBA fans.
From punchline to phenomenon
The Suns have been one of the laughing stalks of the NBA for a decade. From the 2010-11 season to 2018-19, the Suns were 272-450. They finished with a winning record once, in 2013-14, and never made the playoffs.
So seeing the league rally around this team was odd. After years and years of ugly, mediocre-at-best basketball, the Suns are suddenly fun? People actually want to watch this team in the playoffs?
It’s different, and it’s exciting. For the first time in a long time, there’s hope in Phoenix. The team has a few difficult decisions to make this offseason, but let’s talk about that later. For now, let’s look at the bright spots of this promising team.
Devin Booker has been touted as a rising star in this league for a while now. He no longer fits that moniker.
In the bubble, the 23-year old graduated to NBA superstar.
Booker is Phoenix’s heartbeat. The team lives and dies with him. Booker will be a top-5 player in this league very soon.
Everybody likes to talk about his scoring, and that’s great. It’s true. He can go off for 45 any night, and on his worst days, he’ll give you 25. He’s joined the likes of Damian Lillard and Steph Curry in the “WHY ARE YOU SHOOTING FROM THERE!?!? Oh” club.
It’s that new-found confidence that elevated Booker to stardom.
Booker has been on some bad teams. Real bad.
Last year’s 19-63 team stands out. Under head coach Igor Kokoskov, Booker was the de facto point guard just out of the fact that there was no one else capable of bringing the ball up the court on that roster.
Being a point guard with a lack of an offensive system is near impossible. That team was stagnant. They didn’t run enough pick-and-roll despite having a 6-foot-11 first-overall pick Deandre Ayton and an elite scorer in Booker.
Fast forward to this season, and with a high-tempo catch-and-shoot offense, Booker broke out. This young core is built for the long term, so don’t start with the “get Devin Booker out of Phoenix” stuff (looking at you, Draymond). He’s locked up on a promising team for a few more years, he’s not going anywhere just yet.
Playing like the top pick
Deandre Ayton was picked ahead of Luka Doncic in the 2018 NBA Draft. It’s true. Let’s get that out of the way. But let’s get this straight, the Suns’ selection of Ayton is more Hakeem Olajuwon ahead of Michael Jordan than it is Sam Bowie.
No, Ayton will not be as good as The Dream. But Ayton is looking as good as Phoenix could have hoped for.
He didn’t have the best rookie year, for reasons discussed above. He wasn’t used in ways that benefit his playstyle. In 2019-20, more of his buckets were assisted on, and he shot more from the midrange. He ran lots of pick-and-roll with Booker and Ricky Rubio, to great success.
By the way, Ayton was suspended the first 25 games of the season. He played just 38 games. If you’re searching for a Most Improved Player candidate next season, put Ayton on your list.
The Suns finally got their guy
Before reading another line, please watch this.
Do you not want to run through a brick wall for this man?
Monty Williams is the Suns’ eighth head coach since the departure of Mike D’Antoni following the 2007-08 season.
So far, he seems like the answer to this franchise’s problems.
With such a young roster, reaching the players with a meaningful message is so important. You have to motivate them to want to play for you. If they don’t buy in, as we saw with the Suns last year, it will all fall apart.
This team clearly bought in. They played harder this year, and they played smarter.
Williams did what a Kokoskov refused to do last year, and built a system around the roster’s strengths.
With a legitimate facilitating point guard, Ricky Rubio, for the first time in a while, Williams took advantage. He installed a high-tempo offense focused on ball movement, mirroring the systems used by the San Antonio Spurs, where he spent some time as Vice President.
The results show. Booker had more open shots, and his confidence from making those shots led to some crunch-time isolation from him. Williams fed his bigs the ball in the paint. He got the most out of players like Kelly Oubre and Rubio.
As we saw in the bubble, Williams and his staff seem to be excellent at developing young talent. Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges took huge steps during the hiatus, and will likely serve monumental roles on this team next year.
So, what’s next?
The Western Conference is going to be absolutely loaded next year. Very few teams are slated to lose stars in free agency.
Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks are going to take a step. The Portland Trail Blazers will (hopefully) be completely healthy. Denver and Nikola Jokic return a deep team with Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol emerging as future stars. Memphis is stacked with young talent and could potentially trade for more. New Orleans is running it back with a team full of potential.
The Suns are right in that mix. It’s strange to be optimistic about this team, but that’s simply what they proved in the bubble. It didn’t result in the playoffs, but it resulted in respect. That’s something that has to be earned in this league, and they did. So let’s celebrate this team for now, and watch the Suns make some noise next year.
Austin covers the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Chargers for OT Heroics. Follow him on Twitter @AustinTurner_ . For more coverage on the NBA, check out the rest of the great content on Overtime Heroics.